The fortunes of Michigan and Ohio State have gone up and down over the years, but one thing has remained the same from the beginning: the intensity of the rivalry.
Editor’s note: Back in 1980, Columbus Monthly took a deep dive into arguably the greatest rivalry in college sports—a rivalry that remains as emotional as ever even as it’s become more one-sided in recent years. With The Game set for Saturday, we’re republishing our old story.
It is not the oldest collegiate rivalry in the country—it started in 1897, two decades after some of the Ivy League schools began playing each other in football, and in six of the 83 years since then the two teams didn't even play each other.
Nor, in terms of the trappings of such rivalries, is it the richest in tradition. There are no Brown Jugs or Oaken Buckets at stake, just bragging rights.
And if you try to look at things objectively, it may not even be the most emotionally intense rivalry in the country. There are those who will argue—quite convincingly—that Army-Navy takes that honor, and that USC-UCLA and Yale-Harvard and Texas-Oklahoma and Auburn-Alabama and maybe even things like Ohio U.-Miami are just as gut-wrenching to the partisans of those schools.
But in terms of sheer importance—particularly over the last two decades—no college matchup has decided more conference championships and more bowl representatives and produced more national media attention, and in that sense it has become what could arguably be called the modern-day equivalent of the Romans and the Christians.
Call it by any cliché you prefer—The Game, The Big Game, The Big One, whatever—it is now a foregone conclusion that on the last Saturday of the regular Big Ten football season, Ohio State and Michigan will clash before either 87,000-plus fans in Ohio Stadium or 105,000-plus fans in Michigan Stadium and countless millions more on national television and that the game will decide the Big Ten title or a trip to the Rose Bowl and perhaps even the national championship.
There is a tendency to believe that it has always been thus, but a careful examination of the records and statistics belies that. For example, in the first 22 years of the Big Ten’s Rose Bowl contract, beginning in 1946, OSU and Michigan represented the conference three times each, no more than both Illinois and Michigan State.
But since 1968, no other Big Ten team has gone to the Rose Bowl. Ohio State has represented the conference seven times in the last 12 years, Michigan five. (Neither team has been very successful in the Rose Bowl; in those 12 years, Ohio State's record is 2-5, Michigan's a dismal 0-5.)
Even the overall OSU-Michigan series record would tend to indicate that the rivalry hasn't been all that close. Michigan leads the series with 42 victories; Ohio State has 29; there have been five ties. But that is misleading. Since Michigan rejoined the Western Conference (the Big Ten) in 1918 and the rivalry was renewed after a four-year hiatus, the series is dead even—29 wins apiece and five ties. And in the 12. years since the two teams began their absolute domination of the conference, it is just about as close: six wins for OSU, five for Michigan and a memorable 10-10 tie in 1973.
But enough of statistical quirks. For whatever reasons, regardless of how it was viewed in the past, the current fact is that the Ohio State Michigan football game is far more than a football game, as Columbus will witness on Nov. 22 when once again nearly 88,000 fans, hundreds of sportswriters and ABC's electronic wizardry will jam Ohio Stadium and bring down the half-century-old rafters.
It will be Earle Bruce's first Ohio Stadium appearance as head coach against Michigan, and regardless of the outcome, it will put to lie another theory about the OSU-Michigan clash—that it gained importance beyond all reason because for a decade it was not only a battle between two teams but also between two incredibly similar and strong willed coaches—Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes.
Last year, Bruce's first as head coach at OSU, the crowd was no smaller, the game no less exciting, the victory celebration in Columbus no tamer than in the past. In fact, it may have been a little more hysterical because the 18-15 OSU yictory was the first for the Buckeyes since 1975.
And that most recent game really was a microcosm of the entire OSU Michigan series. The crowd was immense—106,255 in Michigan Stadium, the largest crowd ever to watch a regular-season collegiate football game. The Rose Bowl trip was on the line—at least for Ohio State—and the game was intense, emotional and oh so close.
For the few who may not remember, OSU crossed the Michigan goal line twice—the first time it had scored a touchdown on the Wolverines since that 1975 victory. The Buckeyes scored on an Art Schlichter-to-Chuck-Hunter pass, on two field goals by Vlade Janakievski and on the play of the season, a blocked punt by Jim Laughlin that Todd Bell picked up and ran into the end zone for the clinching touchdown.
The win touched off a celebration on North High Street that ended with store windows shattered, 250 people arrested and a car burned in the street—pretty much par for the course.
It is quite possible that it is the fans—not the players or coaches or media hype—that make the OSU Michigan game what it is.
Greg Lashutka, Columbus city attorney who played tight end for Ohio State from 1963-65, acknowledges that given the choice between having a winning season but losing to Michigan, or having a losing season but beating Michigan, he'd pick the winning season.
"It's too much fun to win," says Lashutka. "Beating Michigan when you have a bad year may salvage the season somewhat, but it doesn't compensate for too many losses."
But Lashutka acknowledges that there is something very special about playing against Michigan. “By the end of the season," he says, "more times than not, both teams are undefeated in the Big Ten and it becomes the only game. It's so emotional and intense. There's a spirit and tradition that transcends everything else. There's the senior tackle, and the band comes out and plays at the last practice. It's just such a tenacious rivalry. Tom Mack [Michigan's All-America lineman in the mid '60s) was a friend of mine from Cleveland, and I recall after the 1964 game I took him with me to a party. But before that game we were anything but friends."
The coaches will tell you—and tell their players—that it's dangerous to spend too much time thinking about the Michigan game, especially early in the season. “We've got to take it one game at a time," they say over and over again.
"That was always our philosophy," Lashutka says, “but the fact is there are certain games you have to practice extra hard for, and others where you can spend some time working on things you might use against the team you're playing that week, but you also might use against Michigan. That's especially true in In other words, think about Michigan. Just don't admit out loud that's what you are doing.
It is easy to get caught up in the "Michigan-as-season-saver” syndrome (or the reverse, if you're from up north) in part because of the scheduling of the game. Since 1934, it has been played late in November, at the end of the regular season. So in those years when one team or the other was having a bad year—or even, as in 1959, when both had losing records—the fans and the players can look forward to that final game and say things like, “Well, we'll just have to beat [fill in the proper name] and that will at least make the winter bearable.”
Such was the case in Woody Hayes's inaugural season. While it was no national championship year for the Buckeyes—they came into the game at 4-2-2—it was even worse for the Wolverines. Their record was a dismal 3-5-0. But Michigan scored the game's only touchdown on a disputed second quarter pass reception, and went on to win, 7-0. It is worth noting that Hayes obviously disliked what he had experienced; Ohio State went on to win nine of the next 12 OSU Michigan games.
Schembechler's initial outing against Ohio State was far more satisfying. The year was 1969, and Ohio State, led by quarterback Rex Kern, came into the game undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the nation; Michigan, after a slow start, came in at 7-2 and ranked ninth. In one of the great upsets of the series, the Wolverines won 24-12 in a game that saw no scoring at all in the second half. Michigan went on to lose the Rose Bowl while Schembechler lay in a California hospital recovering from a heart attack.
There were years, back in the beginning of the series, that OSU would have settled gladly for 12 points just to lessen its frustration level. After Michigan won the first game, 34-0, in 1897, the second, in 1900, was a 0-0 tie. The Wolverines then won nine straight before a 3-3 tie in 1910, and Michigan won the next three games before Ohio State finally broke into the victory column, 13-3 in 1919 at Ann Arbor. During those first 15 games, Ohio State scored six points on three occasions, three points once and was shut out 11 times. In all, Michigan has shut out Ohio State 26 times, most recently in 1976. Ohio State has blanked Michigan 10 times, but not since 1962.
Oddly, given the closeness of the series over the years, only 11 games have ended in a difference of three points or less. Five of those were ties, four were won by Ohio State and two by Michigan. But five of those 11 games have been in the past 10 years, beginning with a 10-7 Michigan win in 1971, a 14-11 Ohio State victory in 1972, a 10-10 tie in 1973, a 12-10 Ohio State squeaker in 1974 and last year's 18-15 OSU victory.
At the opposite end of the pole, there have been some real laughers. Michigan beat Ohio State 86-0 in 1902 and 40-0 in 1905; more recently, the Wolverines won the 1946 game 58-6. Ohio State never managed to run up as many as 40 points on Michigan until 1961, when it won 50-20; in 1968, the Kern-led Bucks—called by some the Team of the Decade—won 50-14. There has been nothing resembling a runaway since; in the last 11 games, the most points either team has been able to score was Michigan's 24 in 1969, and in seven of those 11 years, neither team reached 20. .
There have been games won by intense team effort and there have been games totally dominated by an individual. In the 1919 game that saw OSU's first victory, Chic Harley was praised by Michigan coach Fielding Yost as "one of the finest little machines I have ever seen." Harry Kipke, who would later coach Michigan for nine years, led the Wolverines to a 19-0 victory in 1922 by scoring on a 26-yard run, a 38-yard pass interception and a 37-yard field goal to account for 15 of Michigan's 19 points, Tom Klaban kicked field goals of 47, 25, 43 and 45 yards to account for all of Ohio State's points in the dramatic 12-10 OSU win in 1974.
But it is unlikely anyone ever dominated a game the way Tom Harmon did in the last game of his collegiate career in 1940. An Ohio Stadium crowd watched in awe as Harmon ran for three touchdowns, passed for two more, kicked four conversions, punted for a 50-yard average and played all but one minute of a 40-0 Michigan victory.
There have been Ohio State Michigan games decided by virtually every conceivable means—except, it would appear, the much-discussed home field advantage. In the 76 game series, the visiting team has won 36 times, the home team only 35. Since Ohio Stadium opened in 1922, Michigan has won 15 of 29 games in the horseshoe. Since Michigan Stadium opened in 1927, the series there is even at 12-12-3.
There have been dozens of games before enormous crowds, topped by last year's record 106,255 at Ann Arbor. The largest crowd to see an OSU-Michigan game in Columbus was in 1926, when more than 90,000 managed to cram into the stadium to see OSU lose, 17-16. Another 15,000 who showed up to try to buy 2,000 standing room tickets were turned away, and Columbus police officers and soldiers from Ft. Hayes were called out to control the crowd.
And there have been games played before relatively small crowds—19,500 in 1932, at the height of the Depression. Since the two giant stadiums opened, however, attendance has averaged better than 75,000. The 1963 game at Ann Arbor drew one of the smallest crowds since 1932, the game was postponed a week because of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and only 65,000 fans showed up in a snow storm to watch Ohio State win, 14-10.
Only about 50,000 showed up for the 1950 game at Ohio Stadium and that was about 50,000 more than anyone had any right to expect. On that day, an enormous blizzard paralyzed virtually the entire eastern half of the United States. At game time, the temperature was near zero and the snow was being whipped around by 30 mile-per-hour winds. But the Michigan team was safely ensconced in Columbus, and the 50,000 had made it to the stadium, and thus it was decided to let the Snow Bowl be played.
It was hardly a football game. Ohio State scored first on a Vic Janowicz field goal; Michigan blocked a punt for a safety to make it 3-2. With seconds remaining in the first half, Michigan blocked another Janowicz punt, fell on it for a touchdown, kicked the extra point and that was the end of the scoring. Michigan won the game even though it gained a total of 27 yards rushing, completed none of nine pass attempts, didn't make a single first down and punted 24 times.
There have been games decided—at least to a great extent—by penalties. In 1955, Michigan needed a victory at Ann Arbor to go to the Rose Bowl; Ohio State was trying to break an 18-year winless spell at Michigan Stadium. With two minutes left, OSU scored a safety to take an 11-0 lead. The Wolverines' Ron Kramer punted from the 20; the ball, a Sports Illustrated writer said, “traveled 80 yards—40 straight up, and 40 straight down." Ohio State took over on the Michigan 21. On the first play there were offsetting penalties. Two plays later, OSU was penalized 15 yards for a personal foul. On the next play, Michigan returned the favor and OSU had first and goal on the Michigan six. Before OSU could run another play, Michigan was penalized twice for unsportsmanlike conduct and two Wolverines were thrown out of the game. With the ball on the 18-inch line, OSU punched over a touchdown to go ahead 17-0. On the last six plays of the game, there were seven penalties called, including a delay of game against OSU when Buckeye fans ran out onto the field. During it all, the officials were the targets of snowballs thrown by angry fans of both persuasions.
It was not a penalty, but rather the lack of one, that led to one of the most memorable incidents in the series. The year was 1971. Michigan had already wrapped up the conference championship and a Rose Bowl trip; Ohio State was 6-3 and looking for an upset to save the season. With less than two minutes remaining, OSU trailed by only three points, but Michigan's Thom Darden intercepted a Buckeye pass on the Michigan 32, on a play where many thought Darden had interfered with OSU receiver Dick Wakefield.
Woody Hayes exploded. He ran onto the field, and as players and assistants tried to pull him off, man aged to bump several officials, which earned him a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. But he wasn't through. Two plays later, when OSU was called for a personal foul, Woody staged his now-famous attack on the sideline markers and a national television audience was treated to the game-ending sight of Hayes screaming wildly at the officials while the Michigan partisans stormed the field and pulled down the goal posts.
Michigan Stadium was also the scene of another legendary Hayes outburst. That came in the 1977 game, won by Michigan 14-6 when a late OSU drive was stopped by a Rod Gerald fumble on the Michigan eight-yard line. At that precise moment, ABC-TV cameraman Mike Freedman moved in with a hand-held camera for a close-up of Woody. Hayes let Freedman have it, and the national TV audience got to see Woody attacking Freedman through the magic of videotape again and again and again..
For sheer drama, there may be no Michigan-Ohio State game to equal the 1972 OSU 14-11 victory, a game decided primarily by two astonishing goal-line stands by the Buckeye defense.
It was a cold, dreary afternoon; from time to time the precipitation would change from rain to snow and back again. Michigan came into the game with 10 straight wins; Ohio State had lost to Michigan State for the only blemish in its previous nine games. Michigan scored first on a 35-yard Mike Lantry field goal. Ohio State, with freshman Archie Griffin doing most of the ground work, came back and scored on a Champ Henson one yard plunge. Blair Conway's conversion made it 7-3.
The Wolverines came back quickly, grinding down to the Ohio State one-yard line where they had a first down. Four straight times, the OSU defense held as the crowd screamed. OSU held its lead at the half.
On the first drive of the second half, quarterback Greg Hare ran 33 yards to the Michigan 30 and Griffin scored on the next play. Conway's kick made it 14-3.
Again Michigan came back. This time, it had a first down on the OSU five. The Bucks held for three plays. On the fourth, with the ball resting on the one-foot line, Michigan's Ed Shuttlesworth scored. A two-point conversion made it 14-11.
In the fourth quarter, after a pass interception, Michigan took the ball from the Ohio State 29 to the five, where it was first and goal. Three straight times Harry Banks carried the ball; the third time, Michigan argued vehemently that he had crossed the plane of the goal line; the officials ruled he had not. On fourth and inches, quarterback Dennis Franklin tried a sneak. It failed.
Michigan had one more chance. With 1:20 to go, it took over on its own 20 after Conway missed a long field goal attempt. With 13 seconds left, and the ball on the Ohio State 41, Franklin threw a third-down pass out of bounds to stop the clock. But OSU's by then crazed fans stormed the field and tore down the goal posts. Hayes, his players and coaches managed to wave the crowd off the field for the final Michigan attempt.
Franklin retreated for a desperation fourth-down pass. OSU tackle George Hasenohrl sacked him. There were six seconds left, and again the fans stormed the field. Again Hayes and company chased them off, and OSU ran out the clock on a field littered with debris, ringed with screaming fans and with the goal posts demolished. Fans leaving that game told each other there would never be another like it.
But there will. It is simply a question of when. It might even be this month, at Ohio Stadium, when Michigan and Ohio State play a football game. Again.
This story originally appeared in the November 1980 issue of Columbus Monthly.
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